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Stop Noise from Ruining Your Open Office

Harvard Business School Publishing. | 04/04/2017

A beautifully designed office can be a useful factor in recruiting and retaining talent. Today’s brand-new workplaces may contain officeless offices, cubeless cubelands, and collaborative spaces only surrounded by glass walls. These workspaces certainly look unique and make a strong statement about company culture, especially to prospective employees walking through the door for an interview.


These open offices do offer important benefits. Natural light matters: research by Mirjam Muench has found that those work under artificial light become sleepier earlier than those who work in natural light. Studies of people with and without views of nature – as opposed to either no views, or views of built environments – have found that a view of nature makes workers less frustrated, more patient, more productive, and physically healthier. All those open floor plans and glass walls help both light and views filter through to the entire office, and there’s often a bottom-line benefit as well: open floor plans are often less expensive (on an employee-per-square-foot basis) than assigned cubes and individual, private offices.


But an open office has downsides. A 2013 study from the University of Sydney found that a lack of sound privacy was far and away the biggest drain on employee morale:


Further, a 2014 study by Steelcase and Ipsos found that workers lost as much as 86 minutes per day due to noise distractions. Almost any office worker could share a story or two about annoying, loud, or obnoxious distractions – whether it be a coworker, a loud printer, a noisy heating and air conditioning system, or the ring of a cell phone.

Is it possible to have a gorgeous, open office and maintain peace and quiet, too?


We have found that there are several things businesses can do to reduce unwanted noise:


1. Provide dedicated quiet spaces. Similar to a quiet car on a train, businesses can use an empty office or unused conference room and turn it into a “Quiet Room” that employees can go to when trying to focus on an important task or project. These spaces are designated for non-group work and can help provide a place for workers to be more productive than at a shared desk or in a cubeless office.


2. Provide loud spaces, too. In contrast, businesses can also designate areas around the office that encourage interaction and discussion. Lunch areas, game rooms or even phone rooms can help communicate to employees that when working at their desks, those are the times to be quieter, but should you want to partake in a heated debate, feel free to go chat in the game room. Providing small enclaves containing telephones can encourage employees to make phone calls without disturbing their cubemates. There’s even an acoustic telephone booth that could be added to an office to be used for private phone calls.


3. Mask the sound by increasing background noise. It seems counter-intuitive, but adding more sound to an environment can actually make it seem quieter. Research suggests that noise itself isn’t distracting, but unwanted speech noise is. However, words that are incomprehensible are less likely to be distracting. By adding a continuous, low-level ambient sound to an environment (such as white noise, which sounds similar to the sound of airflow), sound masking can help make conversations for listeners that aren’t intended to hear them unintelligible, and therefore much easier to ignore.


4. Bring in sound absorbing materials without sacrificing design. For the organization that has a severe noise problem (think call centers or co-working spaces that are becoming very popular among entrepreneurs and startups), there are a few surprising and stylish fixes that can be installed to reduce sound.


Although trendy, open offices in renovated warehouses can be a nightmare when it comes to sound traveling across the space. Hard surfaces do a poor job at absorbing sound, so bringing in softer materials such as carpets can help minimize noise. Cubicle partitions and standard white acoustical ceiling titles are the most common ways to block and absorb sound, but they typically don’t evoke beautiful, modern design. Those with the budgets to get more creative can consider drop ceilings that soak up sound and incorporate shapes, colors, and designs. Walls can even be decorated with pieces that double as both high-quality soundproofing materials and unique pieces of art. Unfortunately these materials can often come with hefty price tags, but can be worth the investment for offices with major sound problems and employees who care about design.


Looking for a more natural option? Similar to planting trees along a loud highway, plants boast sound absorbing capabilities that can work just as effectively in an indoor environment as an outdoor setting. Furthermore, plants have other significant health benefits, including improving oxygen levels in an office.


If your company hasn’t decided to pursue any of these solutions, there are a few solutions you can try as an individual:


1. Speak up. If you’re finding that a poorly placed printer or loud officemates are causing too many distractions and interrupting your work, alert an office manager or human resources director of the issue. Oftentimes with bigger offices, someone farther removed from the source of distraction may not be aware of the productivity issues being caused. How can you as an employee help solve this problem? Form a coalition with other employees to help brainstorm solutions. An employee-driven initiative could generate more interest and ensure fellow coworkers would follow employee-implemented rules regarding noise levels.


2. Use an indicator. Should you find you are constantly being interrupted by coworkers, determining some sort of public signal that you are not to be interrupted might limit distractions. If you don’t have an office door to close, consider putting up a humorous sign or special figurine on top of your desk (both noticeable visuals) when you don’t want to be disturbed. Don’t even have a desk? A company called Luxafor makes a USB light that clips onto your laptop screen and changes colors to signal your availability. 


3. Wear headphones. While wearing headphones at the office isn’t always appropriate, a pair of large headphones can sometimes serve as an obvious indicator that you’d prefer not to be disturbed and help you be more productive. Large, over-the-ear headphones often help block out unwanted noise better than earbuds. This is again particularly useful for open offices in which shutting a door to block out interruptions is impossible. And to put this back on the company’s plate, should your company have an open office layout, giving new employees a pair of nice headphones on their first day of work may be both an amusing, and useful, welcome gift.



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